Shire Post – The services and first stamps

The Messenger Service:

As mentioned previously, it was in S.R. 30 that the decision was made to move the Shire administrative capital into the western area. This was done partly to secure more comfortable surroundings, but also because of its proximity to Waymoot, which by virtue of location at the crossroads became the principal market town of The Shire. It was also at this time that the Messenger service was instituted as a feature of Shire administration.

The more remote inhabitants, and their correspondents, were upset by the unreliable service and exorbitant prices that were being paid for postal services run privately. At this momentous meeting, it was voted that the most loud-mouthed of the complainers, one Gonzo Proudfoot of Bywater, should be installed as the first Mayor and Postmaster of The Shire, with offices located on the central square in Waymoot. Now it is said privately, and some old letters corroborate this (Whitfoot SR 1471), that the commissioning of Gonzo was largely a stratagem worked out by his neighbors in Bywater to be rid of him! He was a chronic critic of everything and everybody… but little did they realize just how perfectly suited to the job old Gonzo really was. He removed his family straight-away to Waymoot and set up shop in what would later be called the Central Post Office on the southeast corner of the main junction of the roads.

Now Gonzo, like others of the Proudfoot clan, was no fool. He saw immediately the huge potential for profit to be made in setting up a reliable postal service. As part of his commission it was required of him that he offer a recommendation, within one year, for standardized postage rates to be applicable throughout The Shire. Accordingly, one year later, First Postmaster Proudfoot presented his recommendations to the Midsummer’s festival (now removed to the White Downs for the first time). It can be said that perhaps no other postal administration in history has had such a concise yet thoroughly thought-out plan at its inception. Indeed, The Shire Messenger Service, of all the postal entities known to this author, has had the longest continuous period of service without a rate increase that has ever been known!

Gonzo realized immediately that some standardization of currency would be necessary in order to standardize postal rates, so he prefaced his recommendations to base all values upon a currency unit he called the “Penny”, which could then be divided into four “farthings”. Defined as a copper coin the weight of 72 grains of wheat of the variety known as “Noddytop”. This “penny” eventually replaced the motley assortment of coinage of other realms that circulated about The Shire. Twelve pennies would be equal in value to a silver coin of the same weight, to be called a Shilling (though it was more commonly referred to simply as a “silver penny”). Twenty-four shillings would likewise be equivalent to a gold coin of the same weight, to be known as a Crown… named in deference to the king.
Also realizing that there was a significant difference in the cost of delivering mail to remoter villages, as opposed to nearby ones, Gonzo proposed dividing The Shire into four quadrants, each to be called a “farthing”. Postal rates would then be standardized in a simple way such that service within the farthing of mailing would cost one farthing for a letter weighing less than 1 ounz! What could be simpler? Postage between farthings would be 2 farthings (or one haypenny), while postage to outlying districts (such as Buckland and Bree) would be variable depending upon service available. The surveyors had already divided the Shire into four primary wedge-shaped parts for purposes of legal land descriptions, and these divisions were accepted and adopted as primary postal divisions as well. (it should be noted that road infrastructures do not always follow land divisions perfectly, so that in certain areas carrier districts sometimes cross farthing lines. One can, for instance, have farm land that is formally part of the South Farthing, yet because of the way the land lies with respect to the line, the postal address may be East Farthing)

Postal economics:

The major innovation which Gonzo introduced which has kept the Shire Post operative all these many years was the system of distribution of postal income. In each village he selected from volunteers, some individuals with business establishments near the village center which were consistently attended. These would be the postmasters. They would be responsible for obtaining cartage between theirs and neighboring towns along the postal routes. Each postmaster would be advised to apply his or her town mark to the letters as they passed through the office, before delivery or re-routing. At the office of destination, the delivering postmaster would make a series of tick marks on a tally sheet indicating the postmarks on each letter. At the end of each month these tally sheets would be sent to the Central Post Office in Waymoot, and postage revenue shared among the postmasters based on the volume of mail they had handled. Carriers were offered remuneration based on the quantity and weight of mail carried between offices. Immediately it became apparent that there would be no lack of carriers, for it proved economically beneficial to travelers to stop and see if there was any mail that they might carry between stops along their way. The system was an immediate success, and the many young Hobbits seen sporting the red feather in their cap as a badge of service with the Post were soon the envy of their peers.

The Four Farthings:

The South Farthing is by far the largest of the four, comprising almost half the total land area of The Shire. The three farthing stone had been erected about three leagues southeast of the village of Bywater, and the boundary lines set off approximately southeast and southwest forming a great pie-wedge shaped area. This farthing is dominated by large open plantations and widely scattered settlements, with stands of hardwoods occupying much of the higher rockier ground. The economy here is based largely on agriculture, with cotton, maize, sorghum, wheat, and pipe-leaf the primary products.
The West Farthing is the second-largest of the four. Exactly five leagues north of the three farthing stone there was erected a second such stone, called the Northfarthing stone, which likewise divided the farthings. Thus the North and South Farthings did not directly connect to each other, while the East and West Farthings each bordered on all the others. As previously mentioned, the West Farthing early became the administrative center of Shire life, at least, of such administration as there was in The Shire. While a good deal of farming and craft work went on here, the presence of the capital city and the central Post Office determined that the West Farthing would become the artistic center of The Shire, and the preferred residence of those Hobbits who were respectably well-off and of more cosmopolitan habit than the norm.

The East Farthing, the first settled, became largely dominated by commerce and light manufacture, particularly textiles. The wool from the Northfarthing and the cotton from the Southfarthing were here brought together and worked on looms into the staple fabrics of Hobbit clothing. The Eastfarthing was also an agricultural breadbasket of The Shire, for wheat grew beautifully in the great fields North of the Water. The East Farthing also provided much of the higher grade materials for the building trades, for in the Southernmost extremity of the Dim Hills around the villages of Brockenborings, Scary, and Quarry, the Hobbits had found ancient diggings which they worked to provide building stone of the highest quality and workability that was shipped by wagon all over The Shire.

The North Farthing is by far the smallest of the four in areal extent, and, being populated by Hobbits of predominantly Fallohide ancestry, tended towards a more rugged existence than the others. The upland meadows around Greenfields, though comparatively small, have always been the most productive of the entire Shire per hectare, producing the famous “Noddytop” wheat variety with its full heavy head and good storage capacity. Here the Hobbits had more contact with Dwarves than in other areas, and were aided by them in learning the arts of metal working. Much to the consternation of their Dwarfish teachers, the Hobbits never seemed particularly interested in the design and manufacture of weapons or armor, but rather took the metal arts to their highest expression in the production of fine bronze plumbing fixtures and fittings. Indeed, for those who could afford it, Shire-made kitchen and bathroom fixtures were the highest quality and best known in Middle Earth, for the Hobbits did enjoy comfort more than anything. By the end of the first millennium it was only the poorest Hobbit dwellings that still made do with outhouses, as indoor plumbing had become the norm (Leatherleaf SR1550). While trade in The Shire was principally internal, (including trade with the colonies of Buckland and Breeland) some limited external commerce did exist, principally with the dwarves living in the Blue Mountains to the north and to a lesser extent with the Big Folk living to the south and east of The Shire. In later years the dominant exports of The Shire had become pipeleaf (discussed at length by prof. Tolkien 1955), and the aforementioned plumbing fixtures.

The treaty of S.R. 821:

Through the first eight hundred years of Shire history, the administration of the Messenger service stayed pretty much the same. Some new villages grew and were added to the system, some roads were improved from mere trails so that wagons could be used, and thereby they became acknowledged postal routes. But there had always been a problem with the fact that the original charter had not dealt sufficiently well with the problem of postage to the outlying districts, particularly Breeland and Buckland, as well as to the pioneering settlements in the Westmarch. For instance, for an inhabitant of Stock in the Marish district of the East Farthing, to mail a letter to their cousins in Brandy Hall of Buckland, only a few leagues distant, required the services of a privately contracted mail delivery service, which could charge varying rates, sometimes quite exorbitant. Complaints received at the central P.O. in Waymoot were numerous and increasing as the first eight hundred years of Hobbit occupation began to wane.

At the Midsummer’s gathering upon the White Downs in the year 821, (by the Shire reckoning) representatives from Breeland and Buckland presented a formal treaty document, which essentially annexed these districts to THE Shire with respect to postal operations though they would continue to maintain their own Watch and Survey (Underhill SR1578).

Postal rate charts were amended to include these districts such that basic letter rates became:
Local: 1/4p
Inside: 1/2p
Outside: 1p
….where “local” is assumed to mean within the farthing OR district of mailing,
“inside” is assumed to mean within the four farthings of The Shire proper
“outside” is assumed to mean between the Shire and the outlying districts, or between those districts.

The Amendment of S.R. 855:

The aforementioned arrangement worked fairly well, except that the inhabitants of the outlying districts still felt that they were being snubbed and made to pay too much. In the year 855 the above mentioned treaty was amended such that “inside” would also be considered to apply to mail between Bree and Brandy Hall in Buckland, promoting solidarity between these districts.

Supplementary Services:

It was soon found that there were times when it was desired to make a purchase by mail rather than in person. Perhaps, for instance, a Hobbit lass in the rural village of Hardbottle in the Southfarthing wished to purchase a strip of ribbon from a millinery firm in Whitfurrows. It was too far to travel for such a small purchase, and it soon proved to be awkward to actually mail coins. First of all, they were heavy and the postage was high… secondly they were susceptible to “loss” in transit. The problem persisted for some time, until in the year 1220 the Shire Postmaster and Mayor Jeminy Whitfoot instituted the FUNDING SERVICE, which proved to be an institutional innovation of the first magnitude. By using this service, our Hobbit lass in Hardbottle will purchase the funding service from her local postmaster. Aside from the regular postage, she will pay 1/2p for the service to fund to the recipient some amount up to 6p. (see rate chart on the “Products and Services” page for sliding scale fees). At the time of delivery the postal clerk or carrier will the remit the indicated funds to the recipient, either in coin (if available) or in postal waivers.
Please note the postal waivers mentioned above! These were small printed documents, pre-prepared in various denominations and initialed by the postmaster, which entitled the bearer to some amount of prepaid postage. Being transferable, these waivers began to trade around The Shire as valuta, being in effect the earliest form of paper currency known to have existed. The funding service, in fact, proved to be the forerunner of what passes in The Shire as a banking system to this day, for the Hobbits have never developed a separate financial administration other than the Post!

Postage Stamps:

Now throughout this early period of the Messenger Service, postage was paid by the sender at the post office where it was mailed. The postmaster would handwrite the amount of postage tendered in the lower left corner of the envelope (the upper right being reserved for the address by ancient Middle Earth custom), and then apply his town mark. Town marks were quite often, in the early days, simply the name of the town written by the postmaster by hand. Later on, and in the larger towns, the postmasters would carve wooden or bone stamps with the name of their town on it, then write only the date by hand.
It was during the earliest tenure of the famous Will Whitfoot as PostMaster that a strange thing happened. A piece of mail, said to have originated in Nobottle (a deceptively named town to be sure) arrived at the central P.O. in Waymoot with a 1/2p postal waiver pasted to the front of the envelope, postmarked and initialed by the Nobottle postmaster. This letter, dated July 16, 1387, resides today in the mathom house at Michel Delving, honored as the first use of an adhesive postage stamp in history (Whitfoot 1466, 1471, 1476). The crude, round, wooden die used to print the postal waivers is now listed as SC1 (die 1) in the Shire Stamp Catalog. Will thought about this letter for some time, over a particularly fine cask of South Farthing ale, and then hit upon the idea of producing sheets of little squares on paper, preprinted with standard postage rate values, which could be sold and affixed to letters. This way, even when a person came to the post office to mail a letter when the postmaster was not present, the letter could simply be dropped in a box! Will got busy at his workbench, and produced a wooden die which he affixed to a hand-press, and using red ink (the only color he had on hand at the time), printed a sheet of 20 crude impressions of a 1/4p stamp. This stamp became known as SC2. (die 2). It soon became obvious that these stamps would be in high demand, and Will quickly had to abandon his earliest press and build a better one. That first sheet of stamps was used up within the first few weeks of March, 1389. Unfortunately, no examples are known to exist in collector’s hands of this first purposely made postage stamp! The die he used was reportedly immediately recut to clarify the image and tooth the margin. An anonymous but apparently well-heeled collector has posted a standing offer of 10,000 crowns for a bona-fide example of this stamp, but the offer has yet to be claimed, making the SC2 (if any are eventually found to still exist) the most valuable rarity in Shire philately. The only reliable description of the stamp indicates that it is very much like the SC3 recut version, with the exception that the background of the tablet of value is solid color and not ruled, and the margins untoothed (Maringer 1996).
Will proceeded, over the course of the next few years, to produce and issue stamps in six denominations, with characteristic colors for each.
They are:

1/4p red
1/2p green
1p black
2p blue
5p violet
1sh brown

The crude wooden dies used to make these early stamps would wear after a limited number of impressions were made, and thus they would need to be re-cut several times before they became unusable and new ones would need to be made. The study of the various die variations of these early Shire postage stamps is one of the principal efforts of those hardy philatelists who undertake this demanding and difficult research. These issues of S.R. 1389 ushered in the modern era of postal communication in The Shire, and it is with great pleasure that I share with you examples from my own humble collection (as published in The Shire Catalog). For those who wish to view the finest collections of Shire postal history, this author humbly suggests the mathom house in Michel Delving, open to visitors on Thursdays and Saturdays, and to accredited researchers by pre-arrangement at any time (write to Mrs. Primaly Proudfoot, #16 Sandy Lane, Michel Delving, W.F.) Also the collection of districtal postal history maintained at Brandy Hall in Buckland is by far the best collection of private postal markings dating from before the treaty. This collection is closed to public access, but may be viewed by accredited historians by pre-arrangement. Write Meriadoc Brandybuck IV, West wing, level three, Room 27 G, Brandy Hall, Buckland.)

The Modern Period:

The Shire now possesses one of the most advanced and comprehensive postal services, anywhere in the known universe. They have followed a very conservative stamp issuing policy (unlike some places we might mention, such as Gondor) and issue a new stamp generally only every ten years or so. Collector interest is very high in the older issues, particularly in the specialty of Postal History, where the entire used envelope is saved. The propensity of Hobbits to save everything means that every few years, a fine old batch of letters is found in a trunk in somebody’s spring cleaning, and the postal historians have a whole new database to play with. Much research is still being carried out, and a new minor die variety is found every dozen years or so, so there is still hope that a 1/4p die 2 type 1 may eventually turn up. Shire Postal History enthusiasts sometimes specialize in the collecting of the various postal markings characteristic of the various parts of the Hobbit Postal District. The Hobbits still write to each other as much as ever, though the current issues, printed on hand-cranked semi-automatic, multi-color, letterpress machines, while attractive, are far less collectible than the extremely limited-quantity early wood-die varieties. The Animal series of stamps, issued September 22 SR 1400 ushered in the modern era of stamp-making for ShirePost. These stamps are interesting in their own right, but lack a measure of the rustic charm of the earlier handmade items.


It is indeed strange that in the wide world of the big folk, adhesive postage stamps were not put into use until 1840, and that little if any mention is ever given to the contributions in the field of written communications made by the Hobbits. But then, that is just another of the ways in which the Hobbits have been ignored since time immemorial. It is my fervent hope that this paper may acknowledge some of the debt that we owe to them.

Arlo G. Underhill III
Shire Postal Historian
#26 Upshot Street
Springdell, SF
The Shire
Middle Earth
dimensional coordinates: X-72, Y-14_, Z-2d

Bibliography and References:

Baggins, B. et al, (S.R. 1424) The Red Book of Westmarch

Bolger, D.W. (S.R. 1542) Collecting the Postage Stamps of The Shire.

Bracegirdle, G.B., (S.R. 1520) The Shire Catalogue of Postage Stamps of the classical period (1389-1420)

Brandybuck M. et al, (S.R. 1462) Postal markings of The Shire

Brandybuck M. et al, (S.R. 1464) Herblore of The Shire

Brandybuck M. et al, (S.R. 1465) Reckoning of Years

Brandybuck M. et al, (S.R. 1469) Old Words and Names in The Shire

Burrows, Burrows, and Boffin. (S.R. 1634) An Auction of Highly Significant Postal Rarities from the Classical Period of The Shire. (Auction calalogue)

Cotton, D. (S.R. 1692) Geology of The Shire and immediately surrounding districts, together with descriptions of plant and animal communities living therein. (PHd. dissertation)

Leatherleaf, G. (SR 1550) An Account of the Relations between the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains and the Hobbits of the Northfarthing before SR 1420 (PHd dissertation,)

Maringer T. (1996) The Complete Shire Postage Stamp Catalog

Proudfoot G. (S.R 31) Postal regulations of The Shire

Thornberry F. (SR 1120) An Atlas Map of The Shire (Official publication of The Survey)

Tolkien, J.R.R., (1955) The Lord of the Rings. (a trilogy comprised of three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, and including extensive appendices)

Tolkien, J.R.R., (1966) The Hobbit

Tolkien, J.R.R., and Tolkien, C. (1977) The Silmarillion

Took (various) (S.R. 412–14??) The Yellowskin (Yearbook of Tuckborough)

Underhill, D.M., (S.R. 1578) The Postal Practices and Markings of Breeland before the Return of the King.

Whitfoot, W. (S.R. 1466) Shire Communications during the “bad” year. (S.R.1419)

Whitfoot, W. (S.R. 1471) A compendium of artifacts curated at the Mathom House.

Whitfoot, W. (S.R. 1476) Postage Stamps as I Have Known Them

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